8. Why People Buy (a.k.a. Bitter Truth #2)

Here’s Bitter Truth #2:

Bitter Truth #2

People buy a product not because of its intrinsic qualities or characteristics, but because they believe it will either solve a problem or meet a need that they have.

In other words, we don’t buy something because we think it is wonderful or beautiful or valuable—although the thing we are buying may possess all of those qualities and more. We buy it because we believe it will help us either solve a problem or meet a need that we have—in other words, as a means to an end.4 There is even a business axiom that neatly conveys this concept: “People don’t buy drills; they buy holes.”

In my experience, novice businesspeople don’t like Bitter Truth #2 any more than they like Bitter Truth #1. They would prefer that people buy their programming, cooking, art and other products because of the products’ (and, by extension, their) intrinsic excellence. This is especially true if the need the customer is filling seems wholly unrelated to the merits of the product in question. Many artists, for instance, hate it when people buy their work for reasons of status, or “to go with the décor,” and many computer programmers hate it when their customers show a lack of interest in the subtleties of their code, and only ask, “how fast can you get it done?” This attitude, by the way, is the exact opposite of that held by most experienced businesspeople, who are thrilled if someone buys their product for any reason. They are not inclined to dictate to their customers what their motivations should be.

If you think about it, Bitter Truth #2 actually explains Bitter Truth #1. If we buy something because we believe that it will fill a need, and if marketing and sales are the primary vehicles sellers have for fostering that belief, then it makes sense that it is the quality of your marketing and sales, rather than the quality of the thing you are selling, that will determine your success.

Types of Needs

There are hundreds of needs that people can have that can compel them to buy things. We tend to be very familiar with our pragmatic “surface needs” for things such as clothing, food and transportation, but all of us are also motivated to varying degrees by emotional “deep needs” for love, beauty, youth, virtue, etc. (See Chapter 13 for a longer list.) More precisely, what we crave is the feeling or emotional state of being loved (or in love), beautiful, youthful, virtuous, etc.

Needless to say, we also strongly crave to avoid negative or painful emotions such as guilt or shame.

Deep needs derive from our individual personality and experiences, and tend to reflect our most profound desires and fears. They are thus extremely powerful motivators; so powerful, in fact, that even manufacturers of mundane products often choose to market and sell by appealing not to the obvious surface need that the product addresses, but to one or more deep needs. Many ads for packaged foods, for instance, feature an image of a traditional family enjoying a meal that Mom is serving them. The image is designed to address at least three deep needs that the purchaser (usually a real-life mom) has:

• The need to feel as if she’s succeeding at her immediate goal of feeding her family.

• The need to feel as if she’s succeeding at her larger goal of creating a happy and healthy family life.

• The need not to feel guilty about serving packaged foods, as opposed to a home-cooked meal.

These can all be lumped into one “mega-deep-need”: the need to feel like she’s a good mother, or at least not a bad one.

As this example suggests, we usually act from several needs at once, and often our needs are multi-layered. When making a purchase, we may be conscious of some the needs we are fulfilling, and only semi-conscious, or unconscious, of others. We may download an MP3 music file because we enjoy the music, for instance, but we may also download it because, less obviously, we enjoy the “hip,” “affluent,” “authentic,” or “artsy” feeling(s) we get when we do. In other words, the purchase helps us meet our need to feel a certain way about ourselves.

Smart businesspeople learn to market their products by identifying the customer’s most urgent needs and presenting (or “packaging”) their product as a solution to those needs. And, as we shall see in the next chapter, smart activists do the same thing.